I’ve had a few people message me to ask when my Budget Precon Upgrades series would be coming for the Commander 2020 decks. Well, good news – the time is now!
Modifying preconstructed decks is a great way to get started in Commander or help determine (or reset) a group’s power level expectations as you try to figure out what’s fun for everyone in your playgroup. I’m a big fan of budget-based restrictions, which is why I love doing this series whenever new precons get released for Commander.
Here’s the premise: I take each preconstructed deck and make an improvement to it on a $50 budget. That budget doesn’t include tax or shipping, and it uses ChannelFireball.com singles prices, of course. I recognize that $50 means a different amount to everyone – for some it’s a little, for some it’s a lot – but given its proximity to the cost of the decks, I find it’s a pretty good amount. To make sure I have a cohesive theme, I stick with the Commander that you see on the front of the box for the deck and use that to guide my choices.
This week, I’m starting the process with the Timeless Wisdom deck featuring Gavi, Nest Warden.
Obviously this means we’ll be focusing on cycling. The theme is already well represented in the deck, but I have some ways to augment it. There are also some cards that just don’t fit the theme very well – there are always cards that are just printed into the Commander format via decks that are tangentially, if at all, related to the theme of those decks, and I tend to cut those cards when I make these upgrades.
As we go on, I’ll list the prices of cards I intend to add to the deck in order to show you how I kept the budget under $50. Obviously I’m pulling those prices from this very website, ChannelFireball.com, as I write. The prices may have changed as of the publication of this article, which means the overall cost might be lower or higher, and some cards may be out of stock now. Apologies in advance for the mild inconsistency depending on when you read this, but I think the point remains (the point being that you can build a fun deck that can win in non-competitive Commander without spending all your money.)
Here’s the original decklist for the Timeless Wisdom deck – you can find all the decklists on the Commander 2020 info page here.
As I make these upgrades, I try to keep the creature/noncreature/land balance close to the balance in the original decklist. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the creatures I’m cutting:
This deck plays 23 creatures to start with, so cutting six is significant. Agitator Ant is pretty far off theme, so away it goes into the “brew with later” pile. (I have a soft spot for cards that encourage combat, especially early.) Ethereal Forager is a really cool and powerful card, but there are enough ways to harvest cycling cards from the graveyard already, and I think this one is better served in a spellslinger decklist. Isperia, Supreme Judge is one of those cards that I like in the abstract but never really serves me well – maybe I’m undervaluing it, but it’s too passive for me. Portal Mage is another great card for a combat-focused deck, but it’s an easy off-theme cut. Cryptic Trilobite is a really powerful card that could be used to pay for cycling costs, but I’d rather skip the middleman in this case, leaving this arthropod for another deck. Finally, Mercurial Chemister belongs in a deck that can support it better with cards like Thousand-Year Elixir to make sure it gets activated at least once before its inevitable demise.
So what goes in? Well, I couldn’t quite muster a full six worthy creatures to replace these, but the last card I’ll show you, while not technically a creature, gets the job done just fine.
Chasm Skulker ($1.99)
When you think about cycling, think about cards that care about draws and discards rather than just considering the keyword ability. Chasm Skulker should be at the front of your mind for any cycling-focused deck, and when you think about it in context of this deck’s token subtheme as well, this one’s an easy inclusion.
Hollow One ($0.89)
Sure, it’s “just a 4/4”, but it’s going to be free quite frequently, and when you consider the impact of Gavi’s cycling discount, Hollow One’s “cost” is reduced even further than it ordinarily is.
Yidaro, Wandering Monster ($3.49)
Cycle it early or cast it late – that’s the motto of most large cycling creatures, right? Yidaro takes this to an extreme by shuffling back into your deck to be theoretically drawn later. Discard any fantasies of ever cycling this four times, because it won’t happen – just enjoy the idea that you might get an 8/8 trample haste creature on turn 20 after cycling it on turn 2.
Gavi generates a token when you draw your second card of the turn. There’s no bonus for drawing a third, but why wouldn’t you want to? Cycling decks spend a ton of time going 1-for-1 on cards, so getting 2-for-1 from time to time is really important.
Shark Typhoon ($5.99)
Okay, this isn’t a creature, but it kind of is, right? For four mana, you get a 2/2 flying creature and a card at instant speed, and the deal stays good at pretty much any realistic value of X. You can also cast Shark Typhoon, and I recommend trying that from time to time – there are 37 noncreature spells in this deck besides this one, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to make Sharks. At nearly $6, Shark Typhoon accounts for a large amount of the budget, and that’s in no small part due to its impact in Standard, but it’s well worth the pickup if you’re planning to play any spell-heavy deck. Whenever I recommend something that costs a decent amount, I like to make sure it has a wide potential for impact, and Shark Typhoon fits that profile.
So far, we’ve spent $13.86, with quite a lot of our budget remaining. Let’s move on to noncreature spells and make some cuts!
With so much focus on 1-for-1 with cycling, I don’t see this as a Windfall deck. Slice and Dice is a cool card, but 1 damage to the board isn’t impressive, and there are better sweepers with cycling available. The Impetuses are broadly cool cards in line with the Vows of old, but with such a tightly focused theme, I’m leaving them by the wayside. Descend Upon the Sinful is a reasonable addition to this theme deck – the ease of getting delirium when you’re cycling so much is not lost on me, and exiling creatures is great, but I prefer a more versatile sweeper. Chandra, Flamecaller is a decent draw engine, but I’ve got what I think is a better one. Finally, Bonder’s Ornament just isn’t a card I’m interested in – you effectively pay five to draw a card in the late game, which is just too much for me.
So what of these much-touted replacements? Here goes:
Improbable Alliance ($0.25)
Quite possibly the best of the cards to come from this theme in Throne of Eldraine, Improbable Alliance generates a steady stream of 1/1 flyers. Create a defensive force or peck away at life totals – either way, you’re getting value.
Don’t be locked into a particular damage value – deal what you want, when you want. Starstorm cycles when you don’t need it, but it’s hard to let go of an instant-speed flexible sweeper.
Radiant’s Judgment ($0.25)
A little spot removal with cycling is hard to ignore, and most of the time, the cards you can’t pick off with Savai Thundermane and Lightning Rift will be eligible for this particular judicial remedy.
Forsake the Worldly ($0.15)
I love exiling artifacts and enchantments. I do not want my opponents to have them back. Attach cycling and this is an easy call for this deck.
Cleansing Nova ($1.99)
I mentioned earlier that I like my sweepers to be flexible, and Cleansing Nova is just that, allowing you to deal with a wide-angle issue of your choosing.
Astral Slide ($0.49)
This deck already plays Astral Drift, so why stop there? Sleeve up the original flavor and get ready to send opposing creatures to the shadow realm, save creatures from removal or wraths, or rebuy on ETB effects. Gavi’s discount on cycling makes it easy to use Astral Slide to keep Gavi from dying repeatedly.
Alhammarret’s Archive ($10.99)
Have I gone off the deep end? This is a budget article, right? Well, I had some wiggle room in the budget, as it happens, and this cards is absolutely phenomenal in a cycling deck. It makes cycling a 2-for-1, justifying its mana cost very quickly. This deck isn’t really about gaining life, but that’s not important. Alhammarret’s Archive is an easy card to play in other decks as well, making it a worthwhile buy no matter what.
Fellwar Stone ($3.49)
I replaced Bonder’s Ornament with one of the classic Commander mana rocks that does a great job in the early game. It’s no Arcane Signet, sure, but that’s already in the deck.
Spend-wise, we’re now up to $29.83, so we still have about $20 left. I like to make sure to save about that much for the manabase when I can, as I think that’s one of the best ways to really improve a deck. Let’s see which lands are on the chopping block.
I’m cutting four basics, but don’t worry, there are still eleven left. The mana base is full of cycling lands – there are eleven in the original list – so I wanted to increase dual land density, and cutting down on basics seemed the most sensible way to do that. (Truth be told, one of the cycling lands is a dual land already, but still.) Hostile Desert is not a high-end creature land, but I appreciate its inclusion in this deck list nonetheless as a way to leverage those cycling lands further. I just don’t think we’ll have mana to spend on it often. Temple of the False God is a card I don’t really play anymore, as it is absolutely disastrous in opening hands and early draws, and Skycloud Expanse’s dependence on other lands means it has no place in a deck with many cards that cycle for just one mana.
Let’s talk replacements – no, not the band.
Blasted Landscape ($0.99)
It’s a cycling land that wasn’t already in the deck. Nothing too complicated here – I just wanted to up the cycling count.
Desolate Lighthouse ($0.75)
Not everything has cycling. Desolate Lighthouse solves that in a roundabout way by providing some extra looting when mana is available.
Another set of duals that you’ll want in your arsenal for the rest of your life – might as well spend on them now.
I couldn’t fit all three Temples in this list, but if you end up with a Temple of Epiphany, slot it in here as well. Temples are great at smoothing out draws, especially in the early game – Scry 1 is more impactful than you might think, even in a 99-card library.
In total, I’ve now spent $49.53, leaving a solid 47 cents for you to deposit in your Animal Crossing savings account before you time travel to buy turnips in the year 2820 with the compound interest. That means we’ve successfully completed the upgrade! Hopefully this inspires you to try out fun stuff with your Commander 2020 decks, and don’t forget – there are four more precons to go, so I’ll be continuing this series! I’ll leave you with the final decklist – see you next time.